The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t close down Honolulu harbor or wreak havoc on the environment, but it was a somber reminder of how our lifestyles and economy are dependent on the outside world for everything, from food supply chains to tourists. A fear of shortages caused buyers to panic as they emptied grocery shelves and hoarded supplies. Restaurant closures initially left many local farmers unable to sell their produce and forced fishermen to leave their boats tied to the docks. In an island state that is striving to become less dependent on imported food, why does it take a pandemic for people to start buying local products?
While the pandemic lockdown left large scale monoculture farmers stuck with thousands of pounds of single crops that they were suddenly unable to export or sell to restaurants or institutions, small farmers had a very different experience. Janel Yamamoto, director of GoFarm Hawai‘i, a University of Hawaiʻi program that offers small-scale farming training, observed that farmers with half an acre to two acres of land and who grow diversified crops were readily able to pivot their markets from wholesale buyers to the community. “There was a comfort level for people who didn’t want to go to a store but who would allow for drop off or go to places to pick up, and [the farmers’] business picked up,” explained Yamamoto.
An example of this is Farm Link Hawaiʻi, a company that connects local growers with local buyers through its online marketplace. “Chefs buy cases of lettuce, [but] home buyers want one bag of lettuce, so we had to adjust,” says Maria Raftree, customer experience manager at Farm Link Hawaiʻi. “Newspapers were writing articles saying our farmers are in jeopardy, everyone needs to buy local, and we were one of the outlets listed. We went from about 60 calls a week from restaurants, to thousands of calls from home buyers who were frantically trying to place orders with us. We had to expand our staff and facility and are now averaging 500 orders a week. People are seeing how awesome it is to buy local food. I think we will keep individuals on once the commercial businesses reopen.”
Hawaiʻi’s longline fishing industry normally brings in over 30 million pounds of seafood annually. Yet, when the Honolulu Fish Auction closed and the fresh-caught fish couldn’t be sold for export or to restaurants, fishing boats didn’t go out, and the Hawaiʻi Longline Association estimated that the direct and indirect economic losses were around one billion dollars and 9,000 jobs. Ron Weidenbach, who owns and operates Hawaiʻi Fish Company, a commercial aquaculture farm on Oʻahu’s North Shore, lost sales when restaurants and Chinatown markets closed. At the same time, Ashley Watts, managing partner of Local Iʻa, a distribution and subscription-based seafood business, had an increase in customers. “People have started wanting to source more locally. I’m a small sole proprietor. The direct consumer connection is what made it easy to grow business and to sustain it as well. We buy directly from local fishermen, not longliners.”
Kimo Muraki, produce buyer for D. Otani Produce, estimates that during a normal business week, D. Otani receives eight to ten Matson containers of produce a week from the mainland that it wholesales to hotels, restaurants, and local institutions. “With the closure of restaurants and institutions, we didn’t have any incoming containers for two weeks,” Muraki reports. “When restaurants reopened but without tourists coming back, we went up to two to three containers a week. We’ve now been buying more from local farmers because there’s more availability. Normally, they can’t supply all of Hawaiʻi’s needs, but with lower demand, there’s more supply.” Small farmers, or those with annual sales of $50,000 or less, account for 87 percent of the estimated 7,300 farms in Hawaiʻi and just under 10 percent of all sales, according to a Hawaiʻi State Department of Agriculture report.
While the pandemic may have put a positive spin on the importance of growing and buying local, Craig Elevitch, an educator in agroforestry and regenerative human agroecosystems, looks at the bigger picture of food security. “We’re on life support. We depend on almost all of our food and the means for production for the food that we grow here on other people who are far away,” says Elevitch. “We don’t have in place the kinds of systems Hawaiians had and other Pacific Islanders still have, so we are very much dependent upon our technology. We’ve lost sight of food security and resiliency of our food system.”
For almost one hundred and fifty years, sugar, later joined by pineapple, drove Hawaiʻi’s economy. Inexpensive and large long-term land leases, cheap labor, and favorable tariffs supported these export products that were both grown and processed in Hawaiʻi. Letitia Uyehara, whose grandparents were farmers and who has spent much of her career in government and agriculture, is keenly aware of the changes in Hawaiʻi’s agriculture economy. “When sugar and pineapple started to change, people thought it was a great opportunity to diversify, so large land holdings were broken up and smaller plots were given out. But there was no larger vision, so everyone had their own idea of what they wanted to do. But it didn’t amount to growing a commodity that could replace imports,” says Uyehara. “Agriculture will not survive in Hawaiʻi without economies of scale. If you don’t replace what we’re bringing in, we will continue to bring it in. If you have a lot of product, then you can compete with mainland products.”
Elevitch is one of a growing number of agroforestry practitioners trying to change this paradigm of reliance on western agricultural models. “Agroforestry is just a modern word for the types of systems that Hawaiians have had for three thousand years and that other indigenous people continue to practice,” says Elevitch. “What we’re dealing with are technological food systems, which include production, distribution, processing of foods, and serving the interests of more than our agricultural economy, namely the money system and the profitability side. That needs to be balanced with things like food security, nutrition security, the health of our overall environment, and the health of our soil. All of those things are incredibly important but aren’t necessarily addressed by our technological food system.”
In an agroforestry system, for example, trees are integrated into a multistoried biodiverse network. So rather than clear-cutting forests to grow crops or raise livestock, they exist together. The results include more resistance to climate change and severe weather, combinations of crop plants that increase production and redundancy, and reduce risk to farmers while creating a habitat that supports beneficial organisms. Crops are not limited to traditional foods; researchers are working with community farmers and organizations such as Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi to experiment with different plants that will work with each other to support a resilient coastal community and local food production.
Once the pandemic is behind us, restaurants are fully reopened, and visitors are streaming back into Hawaiʻi, the demand for produce and food products will once again far exceed what local farmers can grow. Agroforestry, diversified agriculture, aquaculture, and backyard gardens all help to increase Hawaiʻi’s food security, but it is unrealistic to expect that local production will be able to feed our population of over 1.4 million people plus 10 million visitors a year. Yet, increased awareness of the importance of local food production and choosing to buy local can bring us a significant step back from dependence on imports. In the event of a natural disaster hitting Hawaiʻi or a disruption in global food production, we must be better prepared to feed ourselves.
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